Publish date:

Say a little prayer—and go

Riding runaway horses and antique iceboats have a lot in common. Wayward the old boats may be, but there are those who love them

Like great yellowed moths they moved I—across the frozen Hudson River, antique iceboats, remnants of a time when the Hudson was iceboat capital of the world and great ice yachts outraced express trains down the bank between Poughkeepsie and Ossining. Recently the antiques began turning up, but iceboating had come a long way in the half a century they had rested forgotten in remote old barns. Boats had benefited from modern aerodynamic principles, and the old Hudson boats were hopelessly outmoded. Still, when they appear at a regatta, even the jaded are moved to emotions they cannot always explain.

"I saw it up there in the rafters, and I don't know why but I just had to have it," John Vargo says of the Maryellen, named for his wife. He discovered it in a barn 10 years ago, covered with two inches of dust. It had been built prior to 1860, then been put away and forgotten around 1910 when the icebreakers moved in and Hudson iceboating died. George Fournier's Ours is slightly newer. It takes 2½ hours to disassemble for traveling, but he does it regularly, towing it to good ice behind a 1950 Cadillac hearse. The big boats are 30 to 40 feet long, weigh about half a ton and sport 350 square feet of venerable canvas. "They're like freight trains once they get going," Fournier says. An apt image. That's about how maneuverable they are compared with modern iceboats. But do you criticize a '32 Duesenberg for not outperforming a contemporary Ferrari?

A ride in an antique iceboat is an exhilarating experience, but you have to trust in Providence. The Maryellen, for example, just might collapse into a pile of toothpicks at any moment. Beneath a new coat of varnish the mast and boom are chipped and cracked and bruised like an overripe banana. At 50 mph every joint creaks, and the boom and faded cotton sails strain perilously against ancient fittings. Vargo has replaced nothing. "You should see her in a hurricane," he quips. "Everything starts coming apart."

The big boats are little more than two massive beams with sails; there is a crossbeam with a steel runner at each end and a larger beam extending fore and aft, with a tiller-operated runner at its rear that serves as a rudder. Such boats are called stern steerers, and this is their problem. Most of the weight is toward the bow, and on anything but a downwind course the whole contraption has a perverse tendency to spin off suddenly like a top. "When you're barreling along in one of these babies your control is largely theoretical," says Jay Darling, whose stern steerer more than once has flipped him into the open channel of New Jersey's Shrewsbury River.

One recent weekend six of the stern steerers were joined by 65 modern boats on the Hudson River at Croton, 50 miles above Manhattan. It was a live, three-dimensional, Technicolor history of American iceboating, staged at its ancestral home. Owners of new boats stood back and stared at the antiques like 5-year-olds meeting their great-grandparents for the first time. And packed into two days were all the frustrations and joys peculiar to the sport.

Iceboaters must of necessity be pessimistic. That or a little psychotic. "This sport of ours is a winner when you can do it and a loser when you can't, and mostly you can't," one sailor said. No sport is more dependent on a greater complex of unpredictables. Skiers need snow and soft-water sailors need wind, but iceboaters need ice and wind and an absence of snow and rain. Good iceboating areas are few. However, the Hudson freezes slowly, December snows hadn't interfered, and this weekend it was the only place in the East with suitable ice.

There was a fair breeze on the first morning, when nearly everyone was still in bed. A mile out in the channel the wake of a barge created a two-foot wave under the ice, 12 inches thick but seemingly elastic as rubber. One early arrival rode the wave nearly to shore for the most unusual tack of his, or any iceboater's, career. It could only have happened on the Hudson. What followed, though, could and does happen anywhere iceboaters gather. Everyone arrived, and the wind died. Groups of two and three stood around and waited. "I've seen the wind come out of nowhere," they kept saying, as if reminiscing about such things could cause them to recur. Lunchtime came and went, early afternoon passed without a breath of air, and suddenly at 3:30 John Vargo leaped to his feet. "There's a breeze," he shouted, and two small boats were already moving.

I was invited aboard a modern Skeeterclass boat, 22 feet long, weighing 500 pounds and carrying 75 feet of Dacron sail. Like all modern iceboats it is a bow steerer, rather than stern steerer. Bow-steering eliminates the possibility of spin-outs and is the single biggest improvement in the history of iceboating. The only drawback is that the bow rudder sends up a stream of tiny ice chips that sting your face like needles and make the wearing of goggles advisable.

The Skeeter is the fastest iceboat class, capable of sharp cornering and 100 mph speeds under optimum conditions. Its airplane-type fuselage and airfoil sail make it as sensitive to air currents as a kite, and we hit 40 mph in seconds. It was so maneuverable that there were no fears of collision with others darting close by at similar speeds. We sat deep in the two-man cockpit, inches above the ice, rocketing along at better than 60 on some reaches, although the wind speed was never greater than 12 mph. This is one of the sport's great wonders. The drag of good ice is practically zero, and an iceboat can travel as much as six or seven times the speed of the wind. Its great speed actually shifts the velocity and direction of the wind around it.

Saturday brought a more consistent breeze, and the day seemed an endless swarm of darting, white-winged butterflies with glistening colored bodies; somber giants moved among them. It was midafternoon at Croton when a deep crack was discovered that made an island of a vast stretch of ice bordering the channel. There were jokes about the East's best iceboaters floating down the Hudson, past Manhattan and out to sea. The island stayed put, though, and when it began getting dark everyone hated to leave. A Skeeter made one last run; the antique boats were taken apart and driven away, like old soldiers leaving an army of children. "You can go six weeks without sailing," someone had said earlier, "and then you hit a day you'll remember for 10 years." Filled, as it was, with excitement and nostalgia, it had been that kind of day.